Revolts vs. Revolutions

You’ll never see a clearer example of academic blindness than Revolution, capital-R.  You’d think this would be a rich field of study.  How do revolutions start?  Are there commonalities?  What kind of person becomes a revolutionary?  Do revolutions all follow a similar pattern, or are they all unique?  History, political science, sociology, applied psych, economics… all of these disciplines have insights to contribute.  Or so you’d think.  But while there are zillions of books written on almost every conceivable aspect of each individual revolution, small-r, the big-R topic is (in the academic term d’art) severely under-theorized.

So I guess it’s up to us.

First, let’s distinguish between a revolt, a civil war, and a revolution.  A revolt is basically a large-scale, somewhat-organized riot.  Revolts of sufficient size and complexity become civil wars when they aim for a wholesale change of government.  A revolution, by contrast, aims at a total transformation of society.  It is fundamentally ideological, in the way the others aren’t (though, of course, revolts that become civil wars can morph into full-scale revolutions).

The ideological dimension is key.  The Middle Ages were full of revolts.  The English Peasants’ Revolt, aka Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, is a good example. Wat Tyler had some enumerated gripes — tax relief and whatnot — but did not aim at a change in government, much less a fundamental restructuring of society.  Like most rebels in all times and places, Tyler’s people seemed to believe that the head of government was blameless.  King Richard II, a minor at the time, was held to be the victim of evil councilors — a standard rebel trope.  The Peasant’s Revolt was also a success (though it didn’t work out so well for Tyler personally) — they got most of what they wanted. They achieved pretty much all it is possible to achieve without a full-scale civil war.

The Middle Ages also had a few incidents that you could probably call civil wars.  The Wars of the Roses, for example, which are (probably, in some cases) examples of revolts mutating into civil wars… if in fact, it rose to that level.*  Rome, of course, had umpteen civil wars in its long history, which raises the fascinating question of whether or not it’s really possible to have a civil war below a certain level of political sophistication…. fascinating, but unanswerable by me, and not really germane.  The point is, civil wars aimed only at a change in leadership, leaving the underlying governmental structure intact.  Furius Malcontentus thought he could do a better job as Emperor than Lazius Incumbentus, and got a few legion commanders to agree with him.  Medieval and Early Modern civil wars (if, again, there really were any) aimed at the same thing the Roman civil wars did: Replacing one branch of the ruling family with another.

Revolutions, though….

(Part II coming soon).



*The “wars” of the “Roses” were actually multi-way fights between the affinities of major lords — what pretentious Game of Thrones fans (is there any other kind?) know as “bastard feudalism.”  A field specialist could tell you who all participated, and what each one of them wanted, but I surely can’t.
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9 thoughts on “Revolts vs. Revolutions

  1. Vizzini

    How would you then categorize the US “Civil War?” It was a separatist movement on on side and did indeed, intentionally or not, bring around a major transformation of society.

    1. Pickle Rick

      The Civil War was a civil war, full stop. The Confederacy didn’t change very much from the old US Constitution, nor did it attempt to change the social system. You could make the case that the Confederacy was a preemptive counterrevolution that failed.

    2. Severian Post author

      The US Civil War was a civil war that became a revolution… by the Union. The South considered theirs a second American Revolution, to preserve the government the Founders intended. The North very quickly embraced the war as means of forcing fundamental political and cultural transformation on the South. So: It was a civil war from the South’s perspective; a revolution from the Union’s. Northern intellectuals were quite open about the war’s revolutionary aims while it was going on — that “preserve the Union” stuff was postwar hagiography (and since the winners write the histories…..)

      1. Pickle Rick

        Well, the “preserve the Union” stuff got volunteers into blue uniforms, including prominent Northern Democrats (like G.B. McClellan) before the shine on that bit of sophistry wore off and they had to start conscription in 1863, which set off the New York Draft Riots. Remember, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address specifically says that all the dead aren’t dying to restore the old Union, but to achieve the revolutionary idea “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”, essentially the bloody radicalism of the verses of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” made policy.
        It’s exactly the same shtick that the Left pulls today- we must destroy the old America to create a perfect America in our image, except they’ve taken the Puritan God out of the justification for bloody retribution.

      2. Publius

        The Gulf between what the Southern Leaders said and what the Southern Leaders were actually doing remains the great Cognitive Dissonance about that War. Never have Arguments about Liberty and Constitution been more sorely abused than in the mouths of slave-drivers who wanted to ignored the Constitution when they felt like it.

        The Lincoln Administration went full Abolitionist to keep Britain and France from stepping in, and to provide a new birth of freedom, but mostly the first thing.

        1. Pickle Rick

          Staring at the wreckage free negroes have made of every American city, North and South, I’m inclined to believe that my ancestors were correct in their rebellion.
          In fact, I think they didn’t quite realize how feral and savage the descendants of their farm equipment could be without masters.

          1. Publius

            I understand this argument. What I can’t abide is the pseudo-liberatrian/Muh States Rights revisionism. The fire-eaters seceded so that they could sell excess slaves to new plantation owners out in Arizona. The Ponzi scheme collapses if you don’t find new marks.

  2. Maus

    I look forward to the big-R tutorial on meta-analysis. America has been a hot house cultivator of all three little-r events in its short (relative to Rome or England) history. Revolts like Shay’s Rebellion or the Whiskey Tax Rebellion. These seem focused on popular resentment of a government action perceived as oppressive. Reverse the action or crush the revolt and it’s over. Query whether a cluster of revolts, either of wide geographic dispersion or narrow temporal recency, can morph into a civil war. The argument could be made that the American Civil War was an outgrowth of cumulative actions like the Missouri Compromise, the Jayhawk Rebellion, the Fugitive Slave Act and accompanying Dred Scott decosion etc. This leads me to wonder if a revolt can bypass civil war and lead to revolution. Take the Civil Rights movement. It started out as government action to reverse the perceived oppression of Jim Crow laws and segregation (Plessy v. Ferguson). The Negro, not content to be freed from slavery and given the pastiche of citizenship, was tired of having to step and shuffle and live on the wrong side of the tracks. But what started as a cluster of revolts to achieve the equality promised in the 14th and 15th Amendments evolved into a cultural revolution of advantage over the white man via affirmative action set asides and the unceasing flow of gibs. But if anything, the sense of black victimization, resentment and anger has only grown. Now, whites are starting to revolt as they become a demonized and overtaxed minority in their own nation. And Our Thing is a vanguard of the growing realization that what is needed is a counter revolution to restore at a minimum the cultural value and legal status of segregation. Apartheid now!

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